Today was the launch of the 2012 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, from Blue Star Families (you can download the survey here.) I found a lot of the information presented interesting, but there was one thing in particular that caught my eye: the number of military families on food stamps has tripled in the last year.
I suspect there will be a few factors blamed for this: poor military pay, and spouses who have trouble finding a job (an issue also presented in the survey). But is that really the issue at play here?
The fact that military spouses struggle with finding employment has been getting a lot of play recently, and for good reason. You marry into the military, and that can have a huge effect on your career. A lot of employers understandably are wary of hiring military spouses, because they know that the employee they just hired very well could end up leaving with very little notice for any number of reasons. This life is unpredictable, and unpredictable doesn’t always mesh well with a long-term career.
In any case, let’s say that the spouse does have a job, one that pays well. The family is used to that extra paycheck, and they live comfortably. But then, they find out they have to PCS, and bam — bye bye, extra paycheck. Now the spouse can’t find a job at their new duty station in the same field or with the same decent paycheck, and suddenly, the family is struggling. It’s a very plausible scenario.
While I have absolutely no doubt that the above scenario does happen, I would be willing to bet that there’s a much simpler culprit at hand when it comes to reasons for military families needing financial assistance: lack of budgeting.
I know that we don’t make a lot of money as a military family. But let’s be honest: it’s not that bad. No, we will never be rich. But we have enough to get by. Most military families probably do, if they’re willing to live within their means. But do they?
There’s almost an ongoing joke about not buying cars at the car dealerships here, and making sure to drive the hour or so to another town. The reason is because the dealerships here will take you for all you’ve got. And why do they do that? Because they know they can. There are always Marines who just got a reenlistment bonus, or just got back from deployment, ready to drop a ton of cash on a nice, new car.
The point of that example is that, from what I see, a lot of people don’t live within their means. I’d be extremely curious to know, for example, how many of those families on food stamps also have cable, internet, and smart phones. How many of them bought a new car (or two) within the past year? How often do they go out to eat? Those kinds of expenses can drain a lot of money out of your paycheck, and it makes it easy for people to feel like they don’t have enough money to get by. After all, we’re used to that lifestyle in America. Just about everyone has a TV, cable, internet, decent cars, cell phones, etc. That includes military families as well. (And don’t get me started on how many Coach purses I see walking around Camp Lejeune.)
And while the argument isn’t that military families shouldn’t have those things (we certainly have all of them), it does make me think that the deeper issue here is not a lack of money available for bills and necessities, but poor budgeting and a lack of financial awareness. I also think that when you add in extremely young spouses, that problem is even more likely. Think about it — how savvy were you with your money when you were 20 years old? Learning to be strict with your money, and to budget carefully each month, isn’t always easy and it doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
Would this explain everyone on food stamps in the military? Of course not, and I am sure there are plenty of people on food stamps who genuinely have some kind of extenuating circumstances that are beyond their control. But I also do strongly believe that financial mismanagement is common in the military, and that would explain a lot of the people using food stamps, as well. After all, service members are given allowances for both food and housing, in addition to their base pay. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be an issue, but it is.
What would help solve this problem? Giving families the tools to better manage their money through budgeting classes and financial assistance would probably be a huge help. The problem is, those resources already exist. The issue is that military families don’t take advantage of them, probably because a lot of them don’t know that they exist. So to me, the question becomes, how do we better inform our families of the resources available to help them become more financially knowledgeable, so they can learn to budget properly and manage their money well?
I would be willing to bet that if the military was able to find a magic way to do that, the number of families on food stamps would dwindle.
Photo courtesy NCReedplayer